Educators agree that sharing student data among multiple software programs without any retyping is an efficient, must-have capability for schools—especially in light of new data-sharing requirements imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act. But a highly touted solution in the works now for nearly four years has yet to be deployed outside of a handful of enterprising school districts.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) is an open-standard specification that lets different K-12 software programs—such as student information systems and library automation software—connect through a central server and share information in a common computer language. But a number of factors have hindered the more widespread adoption of the standard, school technology directors told eSchool News, including its difficulty to implement and the lack of a clear certification process for SIF-compliant products.

Driven by K-12 education technology providers, SIF—a division the Software and Information Industry Association—aims to save educators from repeatedly entering and updating student information. The project’s goal is to enable diverse software applications to interact and share data efficiently, reliably, and securely in real time, regardless of their respective platform.

The initiative has officially been under development since 1999. In August 2000, eSchool News reported that SIF Implementation Specification v1.0 had been released to software developers. In February 2002, a remote demonstration of SIF-compliant products proved the specification works.

Now, 10 new school districts will become showcase sites, bringing the total number of districts to use SIF to 14, according to an announcement made June 17 at the National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio. But educators are eager to see the solution implemented across the board.

“All of us in the school IT [information technology] community were cautiously hopeful that true interoperability might be realized, but from an outsider’s perspective, it appears that there are still no deliverables,” said Bob Moore, director of IT services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas.

“It doesn’t seem to be rolling out, and I think that is becoming very frustrating for people,” said Charlie Garten, executive technology director for the Poway Unified School District in California. “It’s a wonderful concept. We really do want it, and we need it. But how do they get it out to us now?”

SIF organizers have advised school districts to ask for SIF-enabled products from their vendors. Many school officials told eSchool News they already use these products, but without interoperability. The reasons for this vary.

Terry Allan, information technology manager for the Vancouver, Wash., Public Schools, said his district already has begun using SIF-enabled products, such as Microsoft’s Class Server and software from HOSTS Learning. But Allan says a lack of wider acceptance of SIF is holding full interoperability back.

“What will it take? Someone to grab the flag, raise it high, and say, ‘Follow me,'” Allan said.

Tia Washington-Davis, IT coordinator for Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools, blames a lack of marketing.

“School districts throughout the country see the need for viable, interoperable products on the market so we can make intelligent and informed decisions about purchasing,” Washington-Davis said. “Many technology directors stated that they have not seen these types of products available in the marketplace targeting the education sector.”

Garten agrees: “I don’t feel like anyone is really marketing [SIF].”

Terri Fallon, director of marketing for VersaTrans, which makes a school bus planning and routing system that is SIF-enabled, thinks SIF might have been marketed too well.

“Probably our marketing was ahead of the game and got everyone excited. That probably hurt us, because everyone thinks it should be here by now,” Fallon said.

SIF director Tim Magner maintains the progress SIF has had to date is a tremendous success. “Think about how difficult it is to get consensus from your friends about going out to dinner, then think about getting consensus from 120 different companies,” he said.

The technology is commercially available, and there are an increasing number of vendors that support SIF, Magner said: “What schools have to do is decide that they want to use SIF to manage their data and then contact their vendors and ask for SIF-enabled products.”

But there’s more to it than that. A key reason SIF hasn’t caught on more widely is that it’s not simply an out-of-the-box solution.

SIF is a custom solution, Magner said, and its implementation will look different for every school district. Schools must decide which combination of software applications they want to work together.

“There’s not one model for how this works, because there are so many systems that have to come together and there are so many different ways that school districts work,” he said.

The 14 showcase sites will demonstrate different ways SIF can work in a school district. School leaders can look to these sites to find examples that are similar to their own districts for guidance.

School districts must designate a project director who will manage the implementation and decide what data will be shared, what applications will be included, and who will update the data. “You begin to see how it’s much more of a management solution than a technology solution,” Magner said.

Another possible factor in the holdup of SIF is the lack of a clear process for certifying that a vendor’s products are SIF-compliant. Magner said his organization is working on creating a compliance program to give vendors a third-party “seal of approval” that their products work well with other SIF-compliant software.

Such a process would give school purchasers “the confidence that [a vendor’s] products meet the specificifications,” he said.

Yet another holdup is that SIF requires a large investment up front, which really requires community support and buy-in so that adequate funding and staff resources can be devoted to the project.

“It requires that a school district be in a place where they want to implement it,” Magner said. “There is an up-front investment of resources, of time, and possibly infrastructure.”

Garten said his district’s tight budget prevented it from becoming one of the showcase sites, because officials there didn’t have the funds to pay for someone set it up or to buy the necessary hardware and software. “Down the line it’ll give us money back, it’s that initial cost that has caused problems,” Garten said.

SIF takes a long time to implement, too.

“It took several months to get the showcase sites up and running,” Magner said. “It is important to recognize that SIF implementation is like any other large-scale implementation.”

But SIF promises greater efficiency and will pay for itself over time, Magner said: “You make the investment up front, and over the life of the system it pays for itself. There are a lot of things that technology can automate. Once they are automated, we can free up those resources.”

Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas, thinks it won’t be long before SIF begins to reach schools on a more widespread basis. But it will take strong leadership to make that happen, he said.

“The concept is solid, the technology is solid, it’s just a matter of … when a key group of customers—schools—aligns with a key group of vendors to push SIF into the mainstream,” Hirsch said.

Links:

Schools Interoperability Framework
http://www.sifinfo.org

Blue Valley School District
http://www.bluevalleyk12.org

Poway Unified School District
http://powayusd.sdcoe.k12.ca.us

Vancouver Public Schools
http://www.vansd.org

Prince George’s County Public Schools
http://www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us

Plano Independent School District
http://pisd.edu

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

HOSTS Learning
http://www.hosts.com

VersaTrans Solutions Inc.
http://www.versatrans.com